SANTA BARBARA, CA (January 16, 2018) – Grief turned to elation for Don Johnson, the former pastor of Montecito Covenant Church, when he learned that his homeless friend, who had been presumed dead in the Santa Barbara mudslide, was discovered alive over the weekend.
Johnson posted Saturday morning on Facebook that Delbert “Del” Weltzin was among the people believed to have been killed in the mudslide that so far has claimed the lives of at least 20 people. Del’s name had been on an official list of missing people, most of whom were likely dead.
Del, 62, lived in a tent along the railroad tracks in an area the mudslide shoved aside and covered over. There would have been almost no chance for him to survive had he been at that location when disaster struck.
Johnson began his ministry in Santa Barbara in 2005 and immediately began a swimming routine at Butterfly Beach. He met Del in 2006.
“Del lived in a tent along the tracks and we would cross paths,” Johnson aid. “He had a post near the village grocery store where he stood with his sign ‘Jokes for Sale.’ That really intrigued me and we began a slow friendship from that.
The pastor regularly bought jokes from Del that he could use in church. “Slowly we got to know each other, even walked from the Starbucks to the beach together. He was younger than I am and moved to Santa Barbara from Minnesota via Las Vegas where he blew up his life gambling and drinking.”
Despite the hard times on which he had fallen, “Del had a a sunny disposition and engaging manner,” Johnson said. “He was clearly an educated and conversant man. His friendliness drew me in.”
Del changed the world for Johnson. “He put a name, face and story on homelessness for me,” Johnson explained.
Johnson spent all of Saturday grieving the loss of his friend, but that night, he posted on Facebook: “Two friends from Santa Barbara received news tonight from reliable news sources that Del is alive. I do not know where he is or what condition he is in. But thanks be to God!!”
Johnson, who currently is the interim pastor at Rochester (Minnesota) Covenant Church, said he hopes to reconnect with Del.
Three people remain officially listed as missing. The mudslide damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes when the hill gave way under heavy rain.
Montecito Covenant Church hosted a community-wide prayer service last Wednesday. One of the teenagers in the congregation’s youth group was pulled covered in mud from her destroyed house. Her mother also was injured. The girl’s father was killed, and her 17-year-old brother remains missing.
Authorities said they have now switched from search-and-rescue missions to search-and-recovery operations.